60,949 Doppler Velocities of 1,624 Stars

February 13th, 2017 No comments

Mauna Kea from Mana Road

Time slips past. The discovery of 51 Pegasi b and the heady early days of planet detection are now more than two decades gone. The pulsar planets have been known for a full quarter century, and N=10,000 is the next milestone for the catalogs.

It’s fair to say that there have been amazing discoveries in twenty years, culminating with an Earth-mass planet in a temperate orbit around the closest star to the Sun. And there’s even significant funding to jump start the design of a probe that can go there.

Yet in the background, as the breakthroughs rolled in, the Keck I Telescope was gradually accumulating Doppler measurements of hundreds of nearby Sun-like stars with HD designations and magnitudes measured in the sevens and eights. This data is as important for what it shows (scores of planets) as for what it doesn’t show (a profusion of planets with Jupiter-like masses and orbits). There are several reasons why our Solar System is unusual, and Jupiter is one of them.

From Rowan+ 2016

The Lick Carnegie Exoplanet Survey has just released a uniformly reduced compendium of 60,949 precision Doppler Velocities for 1,624 stars that have been observed using the iodine cell technique with HIRES at the Keck-I telescope, with an accompanying paper to appear in the Astronomical Journal. The velocities are all freely available on line here, ready to be explored with the Systemic Console. They contain hundreds of intriguing, possibly planetary signals, including a strong hint of a super-Earth orbiting Lalande 21185, the fourth-closest stellar system.

Stay tuned…

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Planet Nine — A One Year Update

January 21st, 2017 4 comments

A year ago, last January, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown lit up the Internet with their dossier of evidence for Planet Nine. Their conclusion was electrifying: An as-yet undetected super-Earth may be lurking a light week away in an eccentric orbit far beyond Neptune. Their article in the Astronomical Journal generated intense interest, including 311,371 (and counting) downloads of a .pdf containing a bracing dose of secular perturbation theory, along with push notifications from the likes of the New York Times and NPR to devices worldwide.

A solar system super-Earth would be extraordinary for a whole slew of reasons. Indeed, an astronomical problem of any stripe that is at once so compelling and potentially so dramatically resolvable comes along extremely rarely. The disparate clues that spurred development of the six-parameter lambda-CDM cosmological model form the only relatively recent example that I can think of. Planet Nine, however, does concordance cosmology one better by demanding six orbital elements plus a mass, and in addition, it’s not “big science”. At magnitude V~23, there are a whole range of telescopes that can potentially spot it. This low barrier to entry exerts a unique hold on one’s interest.

As 2017 gets underway, it’s a good time to review some of the Planet Nine developments that have occurred over the past year. In particular, what are the odds that it’s out there, and how close are we to establishing whether it actually exists? My feeling is that right now, the chance of a big announcement is peaking at a somewhat less than 1% per day.

The outer solar system is neither empty nor unsurveyed. Over two thousand trans-Neptunian bodies are now tracked and listed by JPL and by the Minor Planet Center. Many of these objects are minor indeed, with diameters no more than a few hundred kilometers across, despite being visible at distances out to roughly 100 AU. It thus seems counter-intuitive that a full-blown super-Earth could go undetected in the midst of such a crowd. Yet because we’re dealing with the Sun’s reflected light, the falloff in apparent brightness in the outer solar system with distance is severe, going as 1/r^4. If Neptune were lofted from 30 to 900 AU distance, its apparent brightness in our skies would decrease by a factor of 30^4=810,000, a near-millionfold hit that would place it near the 23rd magnitude. Last year, I wrote,

As for the planet itself? A frigid as-yet unseen world with ten times the mass of Earth. Its twenty thousand year orbit is eccentric, and at aphelion it languishes with 500 m/s speed, drifting slowly against the spray of background stars. Its cloud tops glow in the far infrared, a mere 40 Kelvin above absolute zero. At the far point of its orbit, it is invisible to WISE in all its incarnations, and far fainter than the 2MASS limits. Obscure. In the optical, it reflects million-fold diminished rays of the distant Sun to shine in the twenty fourth magnitude. Dim, indeed, but not impossibly dim… Traces of its presence might already reside on the tapes, in the RAID arrays, suspended in the exabyte seas, if one knows just where and how to look.

Or, more succinctly, its brightness depends on albedo (reflectivity), radius, and its current distance via

A handful of Kuiper Belt Objects have been found that are as dim or even dimmer than Planet Nine is expected to be. Trujillo and Sheppard’s discovery paper for 2012 VP 113 gives the details of how one such search was carried out. A wide-field camera on a large telescope takes repeated pictures of regions of the sky located “at opposition”, roughly 180 degrees away from the Sun. For VP 113, this was done using the DECam at CTIO, which has a 2.7 square-degree field of view and was exposed long enough so that 50% of the 24.5th magnitue objects present in the field would register on each image. Three images spanning about 3.5 hours in total were taken of each field and then inspected for moving objects by a computer. A fraction of the motion on the sky stems from the orbital trajectory of the distant object, but much more importantly, it also arises from the parallax shift generated by Earth’s motion. For an object at 100 AU, this amounts to 1.25 arc seconds per hour, whereas a body orbiting out at 1000 AU will move 0.125 arc seconds per hour. Planet Nine thus moves so slowly that many conventional KBO surveys, while sensitive enough to detect its reflected light, observe with a cadence that is too high to catch its motion. To find it using a wide-field camera, one is best-off taking images separated by at least a full night.

If Planet Nine is out there, it also produces its own infrared radiation. In this article, Jonathan Fortney and collaborators used their atmospheric modeling software to compute what Planet Nine might look like across a full range of wavelengths. The take-away is that with an intrinsic temperature of roughly 40K, Planet Nine’s atmosphere is likely cold enough for methane to condense out into layer of clouds. Rayleigh scattering from pristine hydrogen-rich air above the clouds would thus render the planet quite reflective at optical wavelengths, modestly boosting its detectability over a Neptune-clone at similar distance. Methane condensation also leads to a planet that is potentially twenty orders of magnitude brighter at 3.5 microns than a 40K black body would lead one to expect, generating daunting long-shot odds that it might be visible in the WISE satellite’s W1-band data sets. Aaron Meisner led an effort to very carefully sift the WISE data for a detection. And although their initial survey of 2,000 square degrees has turned up null, they report that they are in the process of extending the search to the full sky.

Planet Nine’s gravitational influence falls off less quickly with distance than does its reflected light. Neptune’s 1846 discovery, furthermore, presents an intriguing precedent. Neptune’s sky position was readily pinned down via its gravitational effects, despite the fact that its orbit was only roughly approximated. Perhaps something similar can be done to pinpoint the current direction to Planet Nine.

Any object orbiting beyond the Kuiper Belt is far enough away that over a time scale measured in years or even decades, its position is effectively static. As a result, Planet Nine would produce an essentially fixed tidal acceleration across the inner solar system. If it is 900 AU away and has ten Earth masses, the Earth experiences a component of acceleration toward it of 2×10^-11 cm/s^2, amounting to a displacement, d=1/2at^2 of roughly a football field per year. As far as our space situational awareness goes, 100 meters is quite a lot. The problem, however, is the entire solar system is being drawn toward planet Nine, and one needs to look for the differential — tidal — acceleration. For example, if Planet Nine currently lies in the direction of Saturn, then Saturn, being closer, will accelerate toward Planet Nine ~2% faster than they Earth does, and over time, sensitive measurements can potentially tease this out.

A few weeks after the appearance of the Batygin-Brown paper, Agnes Fienga and collaborators published a much-discussed paper that hinted at a possible sky position for Planet Nine. Their analysis used telemetry sent back over the years by the Cassini probe, which has been orbiting in the Saturnian system since 2004. Cassini’s ranging data give a very precise location for the spacecraft, and by extension, they transmit precise locations for Saturn. Saturn’s location, in turn, depends on how it is being accelerated by everything else in the solar system and beyond, including Planet Nine (if it’s out there). Fienga et al. discovered that they could get a modest yet tantalizing improvement in their model fit’s residuals to the Cassini probe’s ranging data if they added Planet Nine to their model at a location on the fiducial Batygin-Brown orbit at a current distance of ~622 AU from the Sun in the direction of the constellation Cetus:

In the weeks after the publication of the Fienga et al. paper, JPL issued a press release stating that “NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is not experiencing unexplained deviations in its orbit around Saturn.” In October, a JPL team led by William Folkner presented a poster paper at the Pasadena DPS meeting that made the case that the Cassini residuals show no signal from Planet Nine. They found that if it exists on the Batygin-Brown orbit, it needs to have either a mass lower than the 10 Earth mass value suggested by Batygin and Brown, or alternately, a current location near aphelion at a distance of 1,000 AU or more. A detailed paper from this group is rumored to be forthcoming.

In March, Renu Malhotra, Kathryn Volk, and Xianyu Wang posted a paper to arXiv that pointed out a remarkable, and until-then unnoticed fact:

The four longest period Kuiper belt objects have orbital periods close to integer ratios with each other. A hypothetical planet with orbital period ?17,117 years, semimajor axis ?665 AU, would have N/1 and N/2 period ratios with these four objects. The orbital geometries and dynamics of resonant orbits constrain the orbital plane, the orbital eccentricity and the mass of such a planet, as well as its current location in its orbital path.

This seemed like a critical, potentially breakthrough-level clue, and I have spent the last couple months working with Yale graduate student Sarah Millholland to see whether more detail — and in particular, a definitive sky location — can be teased out of the ideas presented in Malhotra et al.’s paper. Our own paper will appear soon in the Astronomical Journal, and is currently available on arXiv.

The real number line is dense with integer ratios, and the orbital periods of the most distant and most recently discovered Kuiper belt objects are not all that well determined. It thus seems possible that the period ratios of the known KBOs might simply have arisen by chance. We devised a Monte-Carlo simulation to determine the odds, and the answer is encouraging: there’s less than a 2% chance that we’re looking at a random distribution. It’s very plausible that Sedna is in 3:2, 2000 CR105 is in 5:1, 2012 VP113 is in 4:1, 2004 VN112 is in 3:1, and 2001 FP 185 is in 5:1 resonance with something having an orbital period of 16,725 years and a semi-major axis a~654 AU.

If this hypothesis is to work out, the unseen perturbing body needs to have the right orbit, the right location, and the right mass to maintain the resonances and keep the apsidal alignment of the distant KBO population intact. We carried out a sobering 3×10^17 ergs worth of integrations to pin down Planet Nine’s likely sky position, current distance, and visual magnitude. In short, if it’s out there, it’s probably just dimmer than V=23, 950 AU away, near the celestial equator, and at a right ascension of roughly 40 degrees. If asked for the odds that it’ll be found within 20 degrees of this spot, I would cite that most perfectly frustrating of percentages, 68.3.

Sarah has put together a manipulable 3D model of the orbit, along with more discussion. Until the real thing shows up, it’s the premiere Planet Nine destination.

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December 22nd, 2016 Comments off

It was like the opening pages of a thriller. In the gathering dusk of an early winter evening last year, the postman handed me a package with a Belgian postmark and a cryptic symbol.

Inside, wrapped in layers of translucent paper, were two books, both in French. Nothing else. Needless to say, I was intrigued…

Dialectique du Monstre by Sylvain Piron revealed itself (with the use of Google Translate) to be a close study of the life and work of Opicinus de Canistris (1296-c.1353), a mysterious, psychologically tormented clerical official attached to the Avignon Papacy. The book is filled with reproductions of Opicinus’ elaborate parchment diagrams, which are like figments of the fever dreams of Archimedes or Leonardo; bizarre maps and masses of symbols harboring intimations just out of reach, a taproot into unseen connections between individuals, cities, whole worlds.

A while back, I wrote of the Electra Hypothesis, the idea that as the planet binds itself and its bit processes into an ever more interconnected web of radio links and optical fiber, its computational edges and nodes will develop into something of a sequel to Lovelock’s Gaia. Although layered in ambiguity, and separated by a gulf of time and mindset, Canistris seemed to have been drawn toward a similar notion.

The second book, opaquely titled 6/5, vaults the web of interconnection squarely into the modern world. Written by Alexandre Laumonier, the Sniper in Mahwah, it is a history of modern electronic markets and the rise of machines. In contrast to Dialectique du Monstre, it connects not to the past but to the future. The changes, computerization, machine learning, algorithms, that have swept over the financial markets are now spreading ever more thoroughly into an ever-wider range of endeavor.

The title 6/5 is a compressed code for a set of developments that have unfolded mostly out of view. The first part of the book, 6, refers to the floored number of milliseconds for a signal to travel from Chicago to New York on the fastest optical fiber. The second section, 5, alludes to the faster-than-glass signaling over the same route by microwave, which has now dropped two notches below that round number, to 3.982, within a sliver of the vacuum latency on the great circle connecting the endpoints.

A node of Electra’s graph. Hundreds of billions of dollars in coded trades rush daily through the towers of this Appalachian ridgeline.

For nearly a year, I’ve left a latin phrase at the top of the site… Pythagoreorum quaestionum gravitationalium de tribus corporibus nulla sit recurrens solutio, cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem inveniri posset. Hanc blogis exiguitas non caperet.

The translation of the phrase is connected to the pythagorean three-body problem, another obliquely related topic involving descending integers that has seen regular rotation on oklo.org. A remarkable feature of Burrau’s original version of the problem (masses of 3, 4, and 5 started from rest under Newtonian gravity at the vertices opposite the sides of a 3-4-5 right triangle) is that the solution is almost, but not quite periodic. At time, T~15.830, bodies 4 and 5 almost collide, while body 3 nearly comes to rest. In a paper from 1967, Szebeheley and Peters show that a slight adjustment of the initial positions is sufficient to transform the situation into one that repeats itself endlessly.

The integers 3, 4, and 5 are a single example drawn from the infinite set of Pythagorean triples, combinations of integers that correspond to the lengths of the the sides of right triangles. Each triple defines a variation on the original Pythagorean three-body problem, and I believe it’s the case that not a single member of this infinity of initial conditions will generate a periodic solution.

Scatter plot of the legs (a,b) of the first Pythagorean triples with a and b less than 6000. Negative values are included to illustrate the parabolic patterns. (Source: Wikipedia)

With a nod to Fermat, this assertion can be recast as a conjecture:

There exist no periodic solutions to any of the Pythagorean gravitational three-body problems. There may exist a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition that this weblog has no space to contain.

Or at least it is true for every spot check that I’ve computed. For example, the tortured path of 20-21-29:

To place a tiny obstacle in the crush of progress, a translation into Latin beyond what Google can yet achieve seemed in order. I contacted Alexandre, who forwarded the request to Sylvain, who transmitted the following:

Pythagoreorum quaestionum gravitationalium de tribus corporibus nulla sit recurrens solutio, cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem inveniri posset (could be found) /esse posset (could be). [Le verbe exstare (exister, être présent avec force) conviendrait mal àcette modalité.] Hanc blogis exiguitas non caperet.

Translation in English of “[Le verbe exstare (exister, être présentavec force) conviendrait mal à cette modalité]”: the verb “exist” would not be good here. inveniri posset seems to be the best solution.

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A conjecture

February 14th, 2016 4 comments


Pythagoreorum quaestionum gravitationalium de tribus corporibus nulla sit recurrens solutio, cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem inveniri posset. Hanc blogis exiguitas non caperet.

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Listening in

February 11th, 2016 Comments off


As with everyone else, LIGO made my day.

It’s interesting that transverse waves of spatial strain — ripples in spacetime — are consistently described as “sounds” in the media presentations. For example, the APS commentary accompanying the Physical Review Letter on GW150914 is entitled The First Sounds of Merging Black Holes.

Quite frankly, Python is a threat to the scientific guild. What used to require esoteric numerical skills — typing in recipes in Fortran and stitching them together, or licensed packages, “seats”, always priced to keep the riff-raff out, now comes completely for free with a one-click install of an Anaconda distribution. All this stuff places anyone just a few lines away from hearing the sound on Figure 1, which APS posted as a teaser while they scrambled to get servers on line to handle the crush of download demand:


Here’s what I did this morning to “hear” the signal while waiting for the servers to free up, so that I could download the full paper.

(1) Take a screen shot of the Hanford signal:

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 9.09.02 PM

(2) Upload the screenshot to WebPlotDigitizer, and follow the directions to sample the waveform. After a bit of fooling around with the settings, the web app gave me a .csv file that I named ligoDigitalData.csv. It contains containing 1712 x-y samples of the waveform. I added a header line listing “time” as the first column, and “amplitude” as the second column.


(3) Fire up an iPython notebook, import a few packages, import the file, and check that it looks right:


(4) The “wave” package packs integer samples into a .wav format file. A plain vanilla implementation at 4.41 kHz 16 bit sampling looks like this. Not exactly audiophile quality, but so cool nonetheless:


This produces a .wav file:

Now of course, one shouldn’t expect that a waveform that you can silkscreen onto a T-shirt is going to sound like the THX Deep Note

And how ’bout them prediction markets? Over at Metaculus, the consensus among 99 predictors was that there was a 68% chance that the Advanced LIGO Team would publicly announce a 5-sigma (or equivalent) discovery of astrophysical gravitational waves by March 31, 2016. According to the Phys Rev Letter, the significance of the GW150914 detection is 5.1 sigma, so just over the bar. The question is now closed, and some users are going to be racking up some points.

If you missed out, there’s plenty more markets to try your hand at. New boson at the LHC anyone?

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June 25, 2522

February 9th, 2016 1 comment


I remember the eclipse of February 26th, 1979 very clearly. In Urbana, Illinois, the moon covered 80% of the solar disk. It was a clear sunny day, and the crescent Sun projected magically through a pinhole into the 6th grade classroom.

Later, looking at a map, we noticed with considerable pride that a total eclipse will track over Southern Illinois on August 21, 2017. The date had an unreal, distant, science fiction feel to it.

Anthony recently posted a question on Metaculus that’s provocative, slightly creepy, and seems designed to transcend the day-to-day:

Will there be a total solar eclipse on June 25, 2522?

created by Anthony on Jan 28 2016

According to NASA, the next total solar eclipse over the U.S. will be August 14, 2017. It will cut right through the center of the country, in a swathe from South Carolina to Oregon.

A little over 500 years later, on June 25, 2522, there is predicted to be a nice long (longest of that century) solar eclipse that will pass over Africa.

In terms of astronomy, the 2522 eclipse prediction is nearly as secure at the 2017 one: the primary uncertainty is the exact timing of the eclipse, and stems from uncertainties in the rate of change of Earth’s rotation – but this uncertainty should be of order minutes only.

However, 500 years is a long time for a technological civilization, and if ours survives on this timescale, it could engineer the solar system in various ways and potentially invalidate the assumptions of this prediction. With that in mind:

Will there be a total solar eclipse on June 25, 2522?

For the question to resolve positively, the calendar system used in evaluating the resolution must match the Gregorian calendar system used in the eclipse predictions; the eclipse must be of Sol by a Moon with at least 95% of its original structure by volume unaltered, and must be observable from Earth’s surface, with “Earth” defined by our current Earth with at least 95% of its original structure by volume altered only by natural processes.

What do you think? Head over to Metaculus and make your prediction count.

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“That star is not on the map!”

January 26th, 2016 2 comments


Yet its presence has been felt, trembling on the far-reaching lines of analysis.

Readers of Systemic certainly need no introduction to what I’m talking about.

According to the Astronomical Journal’s website, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown’s paper has been downloaded a staggering 243,547 times in the past five days. To the best of my knowledge, this is perhaps the only time that an autonomous Hamiltonian derived by transferring to a frame co-precessing with the apsidal line of a perturbing object, and then clarified by a canonical change of variables arising from a type-2 generating function, has garnered download numbers that beat out Adele, Justin Bieber, and Flo Rida’s latest figures,

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 10.54.11 AM

As for the planet itself? A frigid as-yet unseen world with ten times the mass of Earth. Its twenty thousand year orbit is eccentric, and at aphelion it languishes with 500 m/s speed, drifting slowly against the spray of background stars. Its cloud tops glow in the far infrared, a mere 40 Kelvin above absolute zero. At the far point of its orbit, it is invisible to WISE in all its incarnations, and far fainter than the 2MASS limits. Obscure. In the optical, it reflects million-fold diminished rays of the distant Sun to shine in the twenty fourth magnitude. Dim, indeed, but not impossibly dim… Traces of its presence might already reside on the tapes, in the RAID arrays, suspended in the exabyte seas, if one knows just where and how to look.

And there is an undeniable urgency. In England, in 1846, following the announcement of Neptune’s discovery, and with the glory flowing to Urbain J. J. Le Verrier in particular, and to France in general, the Rev. James Challis and the Astronomer Royal George Airy were denounced for their failures in following up John Couch Adams’ predictions.

Adams had done essentially the same work as LeVerrier, but he didn’t push very hard to get his planet detected. The Cambridge astronomers marshaled only vague half-hearted searches, even though they had a substantially longer lead time than the astronomers at the Berlin Observatory who first spotted the planet. “Oh! curse their narcotic Souls!” wrote Adam Sedgwick, professor of geology at Trinity College in reference to Challis and Airy.

So what will it take to find Planet Nine? Mike and Konstantin have started a website that gives details and updates on the search.

One point that’s interesting to remember is that while an eccentricity, e=0.6 is high, much higher than the rest of the planets in the solar system, it’s not all that high. This planet is no HD 80606b. While it’s true that it tends to congregate near the far point of its orbit, there’s a non-negligible chance of finding it anywhere on its trajectory. In the figure below, the planet is plotted at 100 equal-time increments along its orbit, which shows the distribution of probability for each segment of a great circle that rings the sky:


Similarly, if we assume that its radius is 75% that of Neptune, and that it has a similar albedo, its V magnitude will vary in the following manner during the course of its orbit:

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 10.49.42 AM

I’ve got a sense — an irresponsible atavistic premonition, actually — that the planet will be caught just as it passes through the 700 AU circle.

We’ve set up a prediction market on the prospects for near-term discovery of Planet Nine at Metaculus. Sign up (or log in) and make your prediction count!

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January 10th, 2016 Comments off

When it rains it pours.

And in California, for the past several years, it mostly hasn’t. This summer, the creeks in the Santa Cruz Mountains were reduced to slight trickles, which was sufficiently alarming to cause me to start watching the USGS’s real-time web-based flow monitor for the San Lorenzo River. The growing drought is evident in the nadirs of this plot of the streamflow for the past four years:


This summer and last, the mighty San Lorenzo was scraping by at about five cubic feet per second, which was thousands of times less than the peak flow at the end of 2012. Stream flow depends on a number of known factors — watershed characteristics, rainfall, ground saturation, etc. etc., all of which allow for an excellent short-term predictive model.

There is a provocative at-a-glance similarity of the stream flow process and the stock market volatility process, which is conveniently measured by the VIX index:


Analogies springing from the superficial commonality might be something interesting to think about when one is constructing predictive models for volatility, and indeed, the idea seems a bit more urgent at the beginning of this week than it was at the beginning of last…

For those interested, I’ve set up two seemingly unrelated prediction markets at our new website Metaculus. The first gathers forecasts of whether the California Drought will end by this spring. The second asks whether we’ll see an intra-day print of VIX>50 this year. We’re trying to juice some liquidity into these markets, so go ahead and and make your forecast…

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March of Progress

December 30th, 2015 Comments off


For many years, and irregardless of the audience, one could profitably start one’s talk on extrasolar planets with an impressive plot. On the y-axis was the log of the planetary mass (or if one was feeling particularly rigorous, log[Msin(i)]), and the x-axis charted the year of discovery. The lower envelope of the points on the graph traced out a perfect Moore’s Law trajectory that intersected one Earth mass sometime around 2011 or 2012. (And rather exhiliratingly, Gordon Moore himself was actually sitting in the audience at one such talk, back in 2008.)

But now, that graph just makes me feel old, like uncovering a sheaf of transparencies for overhead projectors detailing the search for as-yet undiscovered brown dwarfs.

By contrast, a document that is fully-up-to-date is the new Kepler Catalog Paper, which was posted to arXiv last week. This article describes the latest, uniformly processed catalog of the full Q1-Q17 Kepler data release, and records 8,826 objects of interest and 4,696 planet candidates. This plot, in particular, is impressive:


For over a decade, transits were reliably the next big thing. At the risk of veering dangerously close to nostalgia trip territory, I recall all the hard-won heat and noise surrounding objects like Ogle TR-86b, Tres-1 and XO-3b. They serve to really set the plot above into a certain context.

Transits are now effectively running the exoplanet detection show. Much of the time on cutting-edge spectrographs — HARPS-N, HARPS-S, APF, Keck — is spent following up photometric candidates, and this is time-consuming work with less glamour than the front-line front-page searches of years past. Using a simple, admittedly naive solar-system derived mass-radius estimate that puts the best K-feet forward, the distribution of Doppler radial velocity amplitudes induced by all the Kepler candidates looks something like this:


Given that one knows the period, the phase, and a guess at the expected amplitude, RV detections of transiting planet candidates are substantially easier to obtain than blue-sky mining detections of low-amplitude worlds orbiting nearby stars. Alpha Centauri is closed for business for the next block of years.

Question is: During 2016, will there be a peer-reviewed detection of a Doppler-velocity-only planet with K<1 m/sec? Head over to Metaculus and make your prediction count.

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December 25th, 2015 Comments off


Spontaneous generation, the notion that life springs spontaneously and readily from inanimate matter, provides a certain impetus to the search for extrasolar planets. In the current paradigm, spontaneous generation occurs when a “rocky planet” with liquid water is placed in the “habitable zone” of an appropriate star.

The general idea has a venerable history. In his History of Animals in Ten Books, Aristotle writes (near the beginning of Book V):


Aristotle provides little in the way of concrete detail, but later workers in the field were more specific. Louis Pasteur, in an address given in 1864 at the Sorbonne Scientific Soiree, transcribes recipes for producing scorpions and mice elucidated in 1671 by Jean-Baptiste van Helmont:

Carve an indentation in a brick, fill it with crushed basil, and cover the brick with another, so that the indentation is completely sealed. Expose the two bricks to sunlight, and you will find that within a few days, fumes from the basil, acting as a leavening agent, will have transformed the vegetable matter into veritable scorpions.

If a soiled shirt is placed in the opening of a vessel containing grains of wheat, the reaction of the leaven in the shirt with fumes from the wheat will, after approximately twenty-one days, transform the wheat into mice.

There is a certain similarity to the habitable planet formula for the spontaneous generation of extraterrestrials — wet and dry elements combined for sufficient time give rise to life.

In his address, Pasteur goes on to describe his own forerunners of the Miller-Urey experiment, in which he sought to determine whether microbial life is spontaneously generated. He placed sterilized broth in swan-necked beakers that allowed the free circulation of air, but which made it difficult for spore-sized particles to reach the broth. His negative results were instrumental in dispatching the idea of Earth-based spontaneous generation of microbes from scientific favor.


A model for Enceladus? Before devising his swan neck flask experiments, Pasteur sealed flasks containing yeast water from air. The one above remains sterile more than 150 years on.

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